Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

Passing: How to Play Normal

image of a tuba laying on its side on a wooden surface

By Larkin Taylor-Parker

I look like someone you might trust to hold the spare key if we were neighbors. We could eat at the same restaurant or cross paths in the grocery store. We might forage the same yard sales. I look like I could be someone you know. You might not believe me if I told you I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age six. Unnoticed, I often overhear your discussions on what to do with us. I have heard your opinion on DSM changes. I saw your puzzle piece tattoo. I listened as you equated my label with violence, called people like me ‘unemployable,’ claimed it is irresponsible of us to have children, suggested we would be happier in institutions. I heard your retard joke. You never guessed an autistic might be listening.

I look normal. That does not make me part of the over-diagnosis epidemic if it exists. I thought two classmates of vaguely similar appearance were one person for my first six weeks at Decatur High School. That was one of my many embarrassing adventures with face-blindness. Tone of voice is a second language in which I am barely conversant. Instead of words, my mental landscape is structure. It is a good configuration for rhetorical skills, speed-reading, and semantic memory. I think of my full course-load at Agnes Scott as people born rich consider money, rarely, with the dim awareness that others worry about such things. I detest noise. I cannot read nonverbal cues. What I can do is pretend to be you.

I started playing tuba at twelve, but passing for *allistic is my longest running show. It takes more practice to fake facial expressions than make a forty-pound horn play sixteenth notes. Tuba can be self-taught. Learning to pass took me years of practice with a special method: every time my family went out in public when I was a child, the ride home was a lecture on my failings. I was upbraided for gait, demeanor, eye contact, manner and content of speech. The reward for perfect success was a moment of rare parental affection. As in music, I learned my part in life. I look you in the eye and smile. I have been taught to move through the world without making you uncomfortable. I modulate, adjust, check you for uneasiness, measure myself against memorized parameters every waking moment so you can pass me on the sidewalk without seeing disability.

You value me because I am useful in some ways now. You assume I will be more so when I finish my education. I run in your circles sans any illusion of membership. As I understand it, we have a deal. You tolerate me because I do things well, or soon will, and have learned not to make you squirm. I give you undying gratitude for allowing me to live on the fringes. I can almost accept this state of affairs. We are often colleagues, occasionally friends. In other cases, I prefer to avoid you. My discontentment with our agreement is the fine print. Autistics who cannot or will not mimic you well enough to preserve a status quo in which you are not confronted with the way we are, whose gifts you consider less handy, are lucky if you deign to place them in decent group homes.

No one likes malcontents, but I have to be one of those neurodiversity people. I can look at individuals who need services and see a common humanity that demands action. As much as you bemoan my lack of empathy, I wonder why you struggle to see it. In the future, you can expect me to be less quiet and grateful. Assume I will bother you, knock on your door, make the problems of people like me moral issues. When I was a child, you thought “getting over” my special interests was good for me. I think it might help you to spend less time obsessing over normalcy. I may not worry so much about passing. It would do you good to work through your problems with diversity. Tomorrow, I might not smile. I might not look you in the eye.


Photo Credit: Charles Hutchins/Flickr

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2012 and has been updated with a new author bio as well as a new featured image. 

Larkin Taylor-Parker is a second-year law student at the University of Georgia. She is interested in disability rights, the experiences of young professionals from historically marginalized groups, and fixing internet culture. She is also an avid recreational tuba player.

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  • I am a mother of a teenaged girl with severe cerebral palsy who cannot speak. She faces some similar perceptions and prejudices. I have been fighting for her education and for her to be part of the community for years now.

    I wrote a couple of poems about Special Ed you may like. I hope some day my daughter will have a voice.

    The Differently Deranged God of Special Ed Gathers Her Children About Her

    Good blog post. It resonated with me. Thanks.

  • First, you are an amazing writer. And this has nothing to do with the content of your piece or autism or being autistic. It reads like the spoken word at my favorite open mic night, it’s melody is so beautiful.
    Aside from the beauty of your writing, I really appreciate your expression of your life. I have an autistic daughter, and I spend so much of my time trying to understand her. I HAVE questioned how many things “we” work on with her is simply to assimilate – – but, that this assimilation is REALLY ONLY ABOUT MAKING OTHER nt PEOPLE COMFORTABLE. She is fine operating like she does…. I don’t know. I won’t know until I’m older, and perhaps stumbling around online I’ll come across her blog. I hope that I read words that make me feel like maybe I did a couple of things right. Much love to you, Daleth.

  • Wow. Thank you for writing this. As my son gets older, I worry about whether I am just teaching him to pass for NT. He has autism and was diagnosed 2 years ago. I work with him a lot, try to help him learn, etc. I even started a LEGO social club so he could meet other kids who have similar interests. I figured I could capitalize on his special interest and help him learn social skills. Still, I worry. Am I not accepting him enough? Am I trying to change him too much? I just don’t know. Thank you for your post, though! It was very thought provoking!

  • Love this post, Larkin! I agree – I wish for parents that they would stop obsessing about getting their child to fit in, about changing their child, about “normal” behavior, about getting over “special interests.” Bother me as much as you want, Larkin. I’m listening.

    Tim – found this great post through your comment on my blog. Thank you, thank you. LOVE your blog.

  • movillegas

    I really love your post, Timbo. Speaking of “normal”, I would rather be “real” than “normal”.

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  • This. This is great. I mean, what happened is not, but your description is. I never could pass for normal, but I can and do pass for merely weird.

  • Larkin, thank you so much for the honesty of your piece.

    Learning to pass took me years of practice with a special method: every time my family went out in public when I was a child, the ride home was a lecture on my failings. I was upbraided for gait, demeanor, eye contact, manner and content of speech. The reward for perfect success was a moment of rare parental affection.

    You have really helped me understand why adult autistics can be hostile to allistic parents of autistic children. I think of myself as a kind person who is an empathic parent; it is hard not to become defensive when attacked. But in the future I will hold your vignette in mind.

  • Karl

    That was incredibly beautiful and powerful. I realize that I have a lot more to consider with respect to me and my son…

    What I think is in his best interest may not be so. I’ve been conflicted about “appropriate” social etiquette for a while. Your post stirred up a lot a thoughts… thanks.

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  • Beautifully written. As soon as “so called autism” can be seen as different and wonderful we will know we are creating a different world. You will like Foucault’s Lectures on Abnormal form his course at the College de France 1974-75. Illuminating and very readable as they were spoken and transcribed.

    What if “autism” were a mutation for the future?

  • And the end of your post reads like Borges The Mirror People. Do you know that story?

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